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Bar News - February 21, 2003

Book Review - 'Jim Crows Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision'

Book Review - Reviewed by Jonathan P. Baird

By Peter Irons

PETER IRONS, A constitutional scholar and author of "A People's History of the Supreme Court" has written a disturbing and important book tracing the evolution of legal efforts to desegregate public schools in the United States.

"Jim Crow's Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision" is a sad story. Irons shows both the checkered progress and the backsliding that have occurred since the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. He argues that in spite of all the efforts made, de facto resegregation is now the issue we face; we have devolved to largely separate and unequal schools.

The great strength of this book is the depth of historical perspective and knowledge Irons brings to the story. He goes back to the earliest desegregation court efforts in the 19th century and sympathetically places the plaintiffs' cases in the context of the period.

Racism utterly and completely framed the existence of early America. As we live in an era when the historical weight of racism is being minimized, it is valuable to reconsider some of the history Irons dredges up. It is jarring to be reminded of the depth and extent of institutionalized racism.

States passed laws that forbade teaching slaves to read and write. If discovered, slaves who learned to read and write would have been severely beaten. Penalties included amputation of thumbs and fingers. Opposition to educating blacks occurred in the North as well as the South.

In 1835, Noyes Academy in New Hampshire opened doors to black students. A mob of several hundred men plus a large crew of oxen literally dragged the seminary to a swamp, destroyed it and drove the teacher from town.

Even after Reconstruction, only a small minority of black children had an opportunity to get any education. Illiteracy remained rampant. Black schools were frequently burned and pillaged in the South. To the extent that public schools for black children existed, they received far less funding than white schools.

Schools for black children were typically dilapidated structures. Inferior equipment and out-of-date, hand-me-down textbooks from white schools were the norm. Unlike their white counterparts, for black students, public school transportation usually did not exist.

Irons shows with shattering force the multiple obstacles historically faced by black children. Into this story, he weaves the efforts of lawyers who fought segregation. Five decades before the Supreme Court's infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, legal challenges to segregation began.

In 1849, a black man, Benjamin Roberts, tried to enroll his daughter in primary school in Boston. She was turned away "on the ground of being a colored person." Ultimately, in Roberts v. City of Boston 59 Mass. 198 (1840), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld segregation. The decision became a model for many other states.

Even after the Fourteenth Amendment passed, courts ignored equal protection as it pertained to public schools, usually holding education was a local matter and granting deference to school committees. State supreme courts all over America rationalized segregation and failed to stand up against the prevailing racism.

While the early history is fascinating, Irons focuses most of the book on the history since Brown. He shows our essential unwillingness as a society to undo the Jim Crow system imposed by whites who considered blacks unfit to attend school with their children.

The author returns to the prophetic words of Justice Marshall, who accurately warned in his dissent in Milliken v. Bradley, the Detroit school case, that our metropolitan areas would be divided up into two cities - one white, the other black. Irons favors renewed efforts toward desegregation but he acknowledges that political will is lacking.

The book is a more enjoyable read than most legal histories, which often are dry and overly academic. Irons makes good use of stories and anecdotes to humanize the cases he discusses.

For New Hampshire readers, it is hard to ignore the parallels between Brown and our Supreme Court's Claremont decisions. The same difficulties in implementation and funding are there. The arguments of Claremont opponents sound very similar to the arguments made by the opponents of desegregation.

"Jim Crow's Children" is a timely corrective to so much of the media discussion we experience about race. There is an unfortunate tendency to deny the legacy of racism and a desire to consider it over. Irons' book is a powerful refutation of that perspective.

Jonathan P. Baird is an attorney for New Hampshire Legal Assistance.


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